Get Over Yourself (Please): Letter from a Writing Teacher

Dear Class,

Thank you for the last ten weeks. You have all worked hard writing and rewriting and editing your own work and your fellow writers’ works, all the while growing in knowledge and experience, which was evidenced in your writing, which has been better and better every week.

I look forward to publishing our Let’s Write! class anthology, our collection of this class’s unique and original memoirs of which I am very proud.

Since I’ve already extensively shared with you my gratitude and appreciation for your patience with me for the duration of our longer-than-usual class due to my inopportune accident, let me jump right in here with what’s rambling through my mind.

Sometimes I think people take themselves a little too seriously (or a lot). “Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?” (from the Holy Bible, Galatians 4:16)

Yes. If you want to clear a room or empty your life, tell the truth. And you could say this is the story of my life, both personal and professional. People say, “Val, you’re so real,” but then when I am “real” (in other words, honest), they hate me for it and call me names and run away.

But here’s the thing of which I’m really guilty. I’m going to really clear the room, now, maybe empty myself of all students/clients, present and prospective, “because I tell you the truth.” Here goes: It’s not my clients/students for whom I work (they just pay the bill), it’s their writing.

My concern is not for the poet, it’s for her poetry and its effect on those for whom it’s meant. And therein lies the problem. God gives us a gift with which He expects to use us to reach others, whether that gift be music, public speaking, sewing, writing, carpentry, or any other number of specialties.

So when all the while, a writer is concerned more about him- or herself than the writing, all I’m thinking about is will anyone ever read this out there somewhere? Paperback? eBook? blog post?  Will any of those ever happen so the memoirs, stories, essays, poetry so full of wisdom and experience ever be allowed to live? I try.

Writers Who Got Over Themselves for the Sake of the Writing:

I practically begged student Gayle Peebles to write a book because the potential from an essay she’d tentatively started in class was overwhelming. She fortunately took the bait, and I got to help her give life to the story wanting to be told and appreciated by all who read it. The result, Best Friends Worlds Apart is a real classic book, receiving high accolades from the judges at Writers Digest in 2017 when Gayle entered it in an eBook contest, and enjoyed by many here in the United States and in Russia.

I cajoled Lily Allyson Liu, a lovely Taiwanese-American lady who was afraid her English wasn’t good enough (It was, with a bit of editing.) into writing her memoir about falling in love with a man involved at the time in a regrettable gay relationship. The result, a touching little 60-page paperback and eBook Lily called A Rhythmic and Melodious Friendship: A Memoir because one thing they had in common was a strong love and knowledge of classical music. It was a true story being written even as it was being lived by her (and him). 

It wasn’t easy, but I coerced Shirley Ann Moore into writing the family story of her mother, a Wiyot Indian, after she had submitted a three-page essay about herself growing up with her mom. Then I convinced Shirley into including a brief history of the Wiyot tribe, complete with a map of the tribe’s home of northern California. Shirley named the memoir A Lick and A Promise: Remembering Mom, Descendant of a Wiyot Tribe. The title came from Shirley’s mom’s favorite line about how she’d clean the kitchen when in a hurry, with “a lick and a promise”. Shirley included a family recipe at the end of each chapter of her book, a delightful aspect readers appreciated.

Like Gayle, Shirley, after the classes ended, began to come weekly to my studio for private sessions with me. Also like Gayle, Shirley would bring family photographs she’d collected which we painstakingly labeled and scanned into my computer to be part of the history her characters were unraveling for her, little by little, in the book Shirley never believed could happen.

Shirley’s favorite line was, “Do you really think I have a book here?” (Gayle had asked the same question early on.) “Of course, you do,” I’d say. “How can you not see it?” I’m truly shocked and often frustrated when students seem blind and deaf to their own stories trying to be told.

Alix had already written about three hundred poems and had posted them online to a poetry website when he saw a Let’s Write! ad in a local paper. He asked if I could help him put his poems together into a book, editing if and when necessary. It took time collecting, reading, and editing, and it’s a book of which I’m very proud and honored to have been a part of getting into publication. Alix called the collection Transcendental Highway after the title of one of the poems contained therein. As we put it together, we would both cry as we read through some of the 150 poems he’d chosen to include in this volume. Then he cried when the book was finished and the published paperback (with a beautiful photo of his son on the cover) was in his hand.

These are everyday people who show up in my classes and private sessions and are open to their own writing (and my suggestions), and with some egging on and a lot of encouragement, come to realize their story has to be shared, has to see light, and that it is very doable. The stories want to be told. These authors come to realize they don’t own their words. They have to be put together and allowed to express the life they already have, for the sake of others.

It’s That One.

Will it be a best seller read by millions? Probably not, but then it’s well known that many best sellers are such because their rich authors purchase copies of their own books in the thousands and millions thereby pushing their book into best-seller status based on the number of books sold. There are all kinds of tricks in this trade.

But that’s not the point. Maybe ten people will read the story, poem, essay. Maybe fifty, maybe a hundred. But it’s just that one in whom I’m interested. It’s that one who is really touched by what they read, what you wrote, that story that brought them to tears or made them laugh out loud. It’s for that one potential reader that the writing had to see daylight. It’s what writing is for, to be read, the way art has to be seen.

Parents, Let Your Children Go!

Dear Writer, Let your children (writings) go free so they can be read by others. If not a book, learn how to do a blog. Sometimes you will get feedback of readers’ appreciation of your writing. But lots of time you won’t, but that doesn’t mean somebody didn’t read it and it was just what he or she needed just when it showed up.

Don’t be a helicopter parent. Like our real children, we don’t own our works of art or creations of craft; we just bring them into the world. As they mature and become complete (ready for publication) we can’t hold on to them but must send them out into the world so to affect those they touch. That’s what writing is for.

I always pray that those who’ve been given a gift by God, will not only use it, but let others benefit by it as well. The writer’s gift of writing is what I work for. The writer is just the venue (and the one paying the bill). The writer is the vehicle through which the writing (story, memoir, poem—in other words, the message) is passed on to those who read it. That’s why writers need to put their fragile egos aside so others can read what God has given them to say, to write.

And if I can help you write, edit, publish it, I’m thrilled and honored. That’s what I do. I help give life to stories that need to be shared. We do it together. And how delighted I am when one of you decides it’s worth the work, and you’re all in, for working on your writing so it can be at its best (the way we clean and dress up our children before we present them to others), with the goal of letting them go out into the world to be appreciated for their gifts by others.

As I’ve said, but can’t say enough, it’s frustrating when people of true talent lock away their art and craft (manuscripts, artwork, whatever they create) and stubbornly fight this kind of encouragement, even seem to resent it.

So There You Have It.

Here’s the point: I’m delighted with students invested in their writing wholeheartedly (like the no-fear, non-ego writers listed above did) because that makes my job of helping clients bring their writing to professional publication standard so much easier and more enjoyable. It can get old to constantly try to convince writers their stories, memoirs, essays, poems are worth publishing, whether as a book or blog posts (or both) when I know from years of professional experience and education that it’s true.

When writers don’t want to do the work and prefer, instead, to argue in defense of their egos (fears) constantly (though they don’t seem to realize that that’s what they’re doing), these fears and unteachable egos get in the way. Then I get the extra job of wasting time and energy (and Writer’s money) placating Writer, so Writing can continue in its best direction in order to come alive on the page. Therefore, the essence of my message to you today, Dear Writer, is as follows:

Dear Writers,

  • Get out of your writing’s way!
  • Stop placating your egos (fears) and feelings.
  • Go ahead and cry if you have to.
  • Stop trying to own the story/poem/essay/memoir; stop trying to keep it locked away, in a drawer, digital file, or inside yourself—What are you afraid of?
  • Realize the writing has a life of its own.
  • It doesn’t belong to you.
  • Its life is not your life.
  • Let it live its own life.
  • Let it go free.
  • Don’t be a helicopter parent to your writing.
  • It will do just fine out there.
  • Trust God.
  • He’s the one who gave you the gift in the first place, for the purpose of your giving it away.
  • Give your gift away.

Thank you for listening. Warm wishes for your writing life ahead.

Your caring teacher,

Valerie Serrano

Blueprint for a Chapter

Hi.  I hope you’ve read my previous post about using a Blueprint for your memoir or fiction story.  (If not, you might click on the link.)

Bones of the Blueprint in Review:

  1. Character’s status quo.
  2. What happens to change or destroy that?
  3. How does the character (you in a memoir) try to fix the new challenge?

(Note:  For this post, I’ll call our sample main character “Jimmy”)

Okay, so now let’s take this Blueprint concept and apply it on a smaller scale.  Instead of the whole story, let’s talk about a blueprint for each chapter within your book-length novel or memoir.

Pull Them In and Don’t Let Them Go!

Let’s say you’ve completed Chapter 1 (rough draft, I presume) where you’ve set up a beginning to your story:  Let’s say Jimmy’s camping (status quo).  He falls over a steep cliff and is hanging on knowing if he falls he could end up in the ICU at best.  This is Jimmy’s status quo: an event that changes Jimmy’s life in some important way which happens immediately—soon enough in Chapter 1 to pull in your readers and keep them interested enough to stick around to find out what happens next.  And Jimmy spends the rest of Chapter 1 trying to figure out how to save himself.

A Real Cliffhanger!

Now you’re on to Chapter 2, which begins with a new status quo inherited from Chapter 1.  Chapter 2 picks up with the new state of things (new status quo), resulting from the cliffhanger (in Jimmy’s case, literal) events with which Chapter 1 ended. 

Now, something else must happen to change that new status quo. (while he’s hanging off the cliff, trying not to let go, an aggressive bird comes by?)

Then, for the rest of Chapter 2 your readers are with your character, chewing their fingernails, wondering how Jimmy will work through this new challenge (that bird, that cliff).  (You could also have a subplot running, such as: he just quit smoking and needs a cigarette, but that’s fodder for another blog post.)

Readers will cringe as they picture Jimmy swinging helplessly while his problem gets worse and worse, the harder he tries to solve it (in trying to dissuade the bird, Jimmy manages to attract the aggressive bird’s larger friends?) before Chapter 2 ends with a new cliffhanger.

Compounded Interest (Your Readers’)

And just as Jimmy thought he had Chapter 2’s problem figured out (while dangling by one hand and fishing in his pocket with the other for a cigarette, he finds that easy-open can of tuna he’d brought along and attempts to throw it to the birds?) here comes a new problem, giving Jimmy something new to figure out, only to become even more perplexed and endangered by Chapter 3’s end, thereby further compounding his problem(s).  

And from there to Chapter 4, which starts with a new status quo, his now compounded problem (the birds are vegetarians?) brought on from Jimmy’s (failed) attempts in Chapter 3, and on from there.  Get the idea?  And yes, I feel sorry for your character, which is the whole point, and your readers will, too. 

Let Their Dinner Burn!

As each new problem leads to another, with each new status quo being changed or destroyed right before the next chapter, your readers can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next, and will therefore burn their dinners because they couldn’t put your book down.  And this is the whole purpose of writing your book—to get otherwise normal, organized people to burn their dinners because they couldn’t put your book down.

Holograms R Us        

Each word, sentence, paragraph, and chapter feeds the larger work.  As you write each chapter of your book, the blueprint for the larger story of your novel or memoir will begin to take shape—the blueprint for each chapter a microcosm of the macrocosm of the whole book. 

Using your blueprint within your chapters, each one will be complete in and of itself with a beginning, middle, and an end.  Like holograms, they are perfect reflections of the larger story as a whole, except that at the end of the last chapter of the book your cliffhanger will finally be resolved…

o

r

n

o

t.

(We’ll miss you, Jimmy).      The End.

Blueprint for Memoir or Fiction (and even some Poetry)

  1. What was the status quo?
  2. What happened to change, or destroy that?
  3. How did your main character (you, in a memoir) attempt to resolve it?
  4. How did his or her trials turn out?
  5. What do you hope the reader will walk away with?

In a book-length work, the same blueprint should also be the backbone of each chapter, which begins with a new status quo, a new problem for the character (you in a memoir) to get through, and a new ending—a cliffhanger to take the reader to the next chapter.

Even some poetry can fit into this blueprint.

Don’t see it as a template or outline, because it’s not.  But if you can’t answer the above questions, either before or after you’ve written the piece, something’s missing.  (Unless it’s “stream of consciousness”, which is just journal writing and not what I’m addressing here).

Beginning, middle, and end.  It’s the first lesson in the most basic writing class.  Even the story of how your day went today would be told as beginning, middle, and how it all ended. Hopefully, with your having gifted the world with one of your stories!

Quick Tips on Memoir, off the top of my head

Definition:  Memoir is about an incident in my life, not my whole life which is an autobiography.  Also, memoir is “softer” than autobiography in that it tends to be more about impressions regarding events than hardcore reportage of the details of the events themselves.

Educate your reader:  Don’t assume, if you’re writing about some legal matter, for example, that your readers will find it boring if you divulge enough to let us in on it, but not too much that it turns into a college course.

Don’t depress your reader:  Even the saddest story has its bright spots.  Write with some lighthearted relief among the heavier moments and even some humor if and when appropriate, remembering that often the best humor is directed at yourself.

Tell me a story:  Memoir is nonfiction; but always remember you’re still telling a story, with a beginning, middle, and an end. How were things to begin with? Then what happened to change them? Then what did you do, and how did it go? How did it all turn out? Did you learn anything?

Not therapy:  Even if it feels like therapy to write about a tough time in your life, don’t let that come through to your reader. This is a memoir not a psychiatrist’s couch.  Hold back raw anger.  Work that out in a journal before you start writing your memoir. Just tell us what happened and allow us the intelligence to figure things out.

Not me against them:  It’s easy to think back on an event and see ourselves as the only reasonable ones present at the time (me good, them bad), but be realistic and honest (dare I say, mature?) in your telling of the story, including those times you wish you’d acted differently. This adds depth not only to the story but also to you, the main character in it.

Be factually correct:  This is true with all writing.  Don’t insult your reader by not checking factual info before publishing.  Was that town, where my car skidded on the ice and I broke my leg and the orthopedist turned out to be my future husband, in California or Nevada?  Use the internet to look it up if you are not sure.

Be tough:  It’s not easy to go back over past events that were anything less than joyful in the experience.  Be sure you’re willing to do so, or the story may come out stilted.  I think it was Mark Twain who said if you’re not crying while you’re writing, your reader won’t cry when he reads it (he said the same about laughing, too).

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